The DVD release of the film thriller, The Company You Keep is an opportunity to revisit a documentary made more than a decade ago on the topic of domestic terrorism in the US and the nature of dissent in major democratic societies. The Weathermen Underground takes us back to a time before al-Qaeda unleashed a rare demon and re-invented the term “terrorism”. This was a time when the major threat the US faced was from within as protests against the Vietnam War challenged the robust US state’s ability to cope. It highlights the historic tension faced by advanced democracies as the very forces freedom unleashes become not only troublesome to the central power apparatus, but potentially deadly.
The student movement that was central in the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the late 1960’s wore its dovish tactics like it wore its bell-bottoms and daisies behind its ears: proudly. Peace was the dominant gesture, phrase and intention of 1960’s youth, as a counter to buttoned up and rigid mores of the black-and-white 50’s and the war generation. But, by the late 1960’s a new class of students rail-roaded the movement and shook it up. They wore motorbike helmets to protests and dabbled in bomb-making. They read Fanon, not Gandhi, ate meat not lentils and hooked in with muscled-up changers like the Black Panthers.
The Weather Underground Organisation (the name comes from the Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – “You don’t need a weatherman to known which way the wind blows.”) were based in Chicago and soon expanded to start blowing up symbols of US statism in a focussed attack on The System. They even went as far as being paid by a pro-drug group to jail-break prominent acid-head and anti-war campaigner Timothy Leary and spirit him off to Algeria.
The broad intention was to “Bring the War Back Home” and at its core were a handful of charismatic serious insects such as Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd and Bill Ayers. They never killed anyone in their bomb attacks, always warning authorities prior. Their “Days of Rage” were limited in the numbers they attracted but, unwittingly or not, their provocation of police and the pitched street battles that inevitably ensued found the bright lights of the burgeoning mass news media eager to shine on them. Under its influence they quickly achieved nationwide notoriety and Public Enemy No. 1 status. The FBI hunt that was soon initiated forced them further underground, into hiding and new identities, and eventually broke them.
They integrated into normality – kids, jobs, shopping baskets and mortgages. Most avoided jail time, despite coming out into the open very publically, due to the bumbling illegality of the tactics used by law enforcers of the day. Seeing them today is fascinating and telling – where did all the fire and passion go? Did it really just fade away? The Company You Keep is a nice, tight thriller very much focussed on such aspects of their story.
Both the thriller and the doco raise the question: is revolution just for the young? The frisson of intense revolution seemingly cannot be maintained beyond one’s twenties, especially when it’s accompanied by serious crackdowns and the loss of one’s entire identity and the severing of one’s ties to previous personal narratives, such as family. It’s a sacrifice I don’t think the human condition can cope with for too long. Those that do likely become embittered and lose touch with themselves and coil ever tighter into self-gratifying narcissism.
Or maybe, if the revolutionary is lucky and/or wise, that drive just becomes part of a lifestyle, incorporated into the mainstream but driven by intelligent and constant choices in favour of liberty and justice.
And maybe that’s where revolution belongs anyway; in the personal sphere. Violent reform or the overthrow of a regime is essentially doomed as the defeated will always fight back. Reactionary violence is often worse than its target. Maybe revolutions should really be gradual, paced and human-sized. Maybe revolutions should never end in a woo-hoo moment as that excited cry can simply become a means of finding another supporter to shut down or terminate as the counter-revolutionary backlash opens its jaws. Taking on states and their monopoly on sanctified violence on their own terms is always destined to fail.
Has a violent revolution ever really worked, long term, and been sustainable? Discuss.
Domestic terrorism in the US was not, of course, invented by the “Weathermen.” The country tore itself apart in civil war and probably the world’s first car bomb was set off in a fruit wagon in Wall Street in 1920. America has shown a propensity since to tear itself apart from the inside for centuries. Pre 9/11, there was the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 which killed almost 700. American leaders don’t have to look over the borders for enemies of the state, and more recent obsessions with foreign nationals, when scrutinised, look to be simply a handy political diversion away from the real threat.
In fact, as arguably the world’s most politically advanced democracy – certainly its richest and most powerful – the USA has written itself a history which is marked by waves of civil unrest and state backlashes. With each ripple of unrest the state has fought back and found old social freedom rules to tighten or overthrow or has made new laws to restrict social and political expression. Like water sloshing about in a baby bath, the American story is one of tidal rushes between its richly libertarian and free-thinking past and the most embedded, omnipotent and rigorously administered state apparatus in any democracy anywhere, any time.
Each time, the state has managed to quash dissent and to reshape society more in keeping with its own visions. Ultimately, each protest, each dissent, each upheaval presages another small victory for the state which, with its eternal time-lines and infinite funding, becomes in stages, a little harsher, a little less fair. Perhaps the solution is not to revolt and alert the authorities, but to simply live to your values and enact your view of society with your everyday actions, with your thinking and your character as your tools. Perhaps revolution is best delivered when breathed regularly and coolly, not through sporadic and heated action; more King and Gandhi, less Castro and Robespierre.
Perhaps these are the salient lessons of The Weather Underground. Young hotheads may have a strong moral point, but the tactics of violence only strengthen the state to the extent that, by the time those young revolutionaries are older, they have been forced to wear the hair shirt of state victory, along with their children, who then take on the state with the same unlearned passion to meet the incremental march of the state and its instruments further into and over our lives.
It’s a pitiful cycle. The nature of revolution itself needs its own revolution.
Title: The Weather Underground
Makers: The Free History Project
How to Catch it: DVD
Couch Time: 92 Mins.
High Point: Plenty of relevance for contemporary times
Low Point: Would have like to know more about the former activists now
Title: The Company You Keep
Makers: Voltage Pictures / Wildwood Enterprises
How to Catch it: DVD
Couch Time: 116 Mins.
High Point: Intelligent and layered
Low Point: Shia Labeouf is an annoying tit